The behaviour of candidates at the General Election last month has been under scrutiny by a Government body as part of its efforts to check up on charities and a number of issues have been identified as needing improvement. However the focus by the Charity Commission has related almost exclusively to the charities themselves. According to a separate but equally recent piece of work by Populus, 88% of the general public believe that the work of the Charity Commission is essential or very important. This means that the Commissions research entitled “Campaigning and political issues arising in the run-up to the 2017 General Election” must be treated seriously. As part of the report which is not much longer than most of my blogs, the Commission lists some case studies but then concludes
“charities have a valuable role to play in raising awareness of and encouraging debate about issues that affect their beneficiaries and wider society…. Charities should remember that they need to remain compliant in the period following the calling of an election, as the risk of them influencing, or being seen to influence, voter behaviour is increased…..In the run up to this election it was reported in the media that some charities were concerned about their obligations under electoral law.”
What seems to be missing in the report, for all sorts of obvious reasons is an analysis of the behaviour of the prospective MPs. There is one exception in the commissions report. However that is of someone who stood outside of the party system and was a sole Trustee of a Charity. However there is a section on visits to charities by candidates:
“Charities are often visited by parliamentary candidates as part of their election campaign. These visits can be a good way for candidates to interact with the local community and for charities to draw attention to their cause and express their aspirations for future changes to laws or policies. However, hosting visits can suggest that the charity endorses a particular candidate by giving them a platform; the charity risks being exploited by a political party for its own benefit; and it poses a reputational risk to the charity’s independence. Whilst we recognise that some visits are arranged before an election is announced or occur spontaneously, these risks still apply.”
My big question is what about the MPs who were in Parliament in 2014, who voted in favour of the lobbying bill including part 2 which focused on the need for charities to remain outside of the political environment. Many of these people then voted in 2017 to support a snap general election and who had dates in their calendar to visit charities in the period between the election being called and the day of the vote? These men and women surely deserve scrutiny by a body other than the charity commission. One such person is the MP for Crawley, Henry Smith. Henry has always been active on social media, particularly facebook and also very active in engaging with charities. However during the election campaign LinkedIn kept on posting accounts of his visits to charities such as Scout Groups and Gudwaras. No doubt these were visits booked before the election, but that means that Henry should be held accountable for placing these charities in a difficult position. Does the charity cancel the visit because they have not included the other candidates in their invitations or risk offending Henry who was likely to be their future MP or do they hope that they are not checked out by the Charity Commission. It seems to me that when MPs call a snap election that it is their responsibility to cancel their diaries, sending a gracious letter to each of their hosts. If that means they lose some votes, so be it. That should factor in their thinking when they support a snap election such as Henry and many of his colleagues did.